The CBD and the Suburbs

For decades the prosperity and wellbeing of our suburbs was sustained by great postwar investments in social and physical infrastructure – much of this to support the burgeoning defence, white-goods and automotive industries in the suburbs.

For decades the prosperity and wellbeing of our suburbs was sustained by great postwar investments in social and physical infrastructure – much of this to support the burgeoning defence, white-goods and automotive industries in the suburbs. These industries fuelled the growth of other sectors, creating complex webs of interlinked firms that we call industry networks and clusters today. There is a view prevailing in some policy and academic circles today that the CBD is the motor force of the modern economy and that much industrial development in suburban Australia cannot be sustained in the face of globalisation. The Grattan Institute’s recent ‘Productive Cities’ report is a case in point, reinforcing the global cities agenda of the last decade without acknowledging the critical role that our suburbs have played and continue to play in economic development. The reality is that our suburban landscapes remain centrally important to national prosperity. The benefits of industrial agglomeration (networks and clusters of firms, education and research facilities) are evident not only in our city centres but also in our suburbs. What these places lack in large measure is sufficient investment to more rapidly modernise aged housing, transport and social infrastructure. Without this, great areas of our urban landscape will not share the productivity growth and improvements needed to sustain vibrant and prosperous communities and economies. Every 50 years or so we need to rejuvenate our suburban infrastructure – that time has come again. As the Federal Government’s Population Policy reminds us, the well-being of residents and the prosperity and productivity of regions demands 21st century infrastructure, technology, housing and jobs. While South Australia is no stranger to integrated approaches to industry, workforce and urban development, the challenge of building more sustainable suburbs requires revisiting some well established principles. In his landmark book, Ideas for Australian Cities, first published in 1971, Hugh Stretton captured the imagination of a generation of urban policymakers and practitioners looking for insights into the complexity and richness of Australian suburban life. Stretton not only wrote with great compassion about suburban Australia, he engaged in the policy process himself, putting progressive ideas into practice through his role as Deputy Chair of the Housing Trust of SA. Many have looked to his work for inspiration in their attempts to design cities that respond to complex human needs. We would do well to do so again. Stretton understood more than most the important relationship that exists between industry and urban development. He was a close observer of history and knew how powerful industry development could be a motor force for sustainable suburban development. The Global Financial Crisis, a high Australian dollar and the rise of Asia as an economic superpower have combined to challenge this once dominant model, requiring a radical rethink of how urban, economic and industry policy intersect in Australian suburban areas. We are left in little doubt that transformation of manufacturing must proceed at a much faster pace than it is, a reality acknowledged in the South Australian Government’s ‘Manufacturing Works’ strategy, which has injected a new sense of urgency into the need to support the growth of high value advanced manufacturing. With GMH (Holden) threatening to close in South Australia, pressure is on to put in place strategies that rapidly accelerate the diversification of the automotive components sector to ensure that they don’t go down with the Holden ship. The Northern Adelaide economy must be diversified much more than it is and the pace of transformation accelerated. The goods news is that plenty of opportunities exist to drive industry and employment growth over the coming years. We know that environmental challenges like climate change and salinity will generate increasing demand for cleantech goods and services over decades to come. Population ageing is generating growing demand for medical and assistive devices, boosted by the introduction by the Australian Government of the National Disability Insurance Scheme, now known as Disability Care and Consumer Directed Care, a new program designed to help older Australians stay in their homes longer. These multi-billion dollar programs have the potential to drive rapid growth of a robust assistive devices and services industry in Australia. This will be sorely needed in areas like Northern Adelaide where traditional forms of mass manufacturing are under threat and unemployment is well above state and national averages. A mutually reinforcing relationship between population growth, social and physical infrastructure development and workforce and industry development is needed to ensure that people are able to work within a reasonable distance from where they live. Suburban areas slated for population growth, like Playford and Salisbury, will need much faster rates of local employment growth to achieve this outcome. Declining employment self-sufficiency, inadequate infrastructure and excessive travel to work times require bold solutions, nation;building solutions underpinned by higher levels of public investment. Too few of us read about our rich history. Hugh Stretton inspired generations to do so. While the great post war industrial transformation that underpinned the establishment of the townships of Salisbury and Elizabeth continues to this day, it is less connected to the local population that once sustained it. A disjuncture between population growth and industrial development has been eating away at the post-war model of suburban development. There are currently around 82,000 people living in the City of Playford. In just 15 years, according to the NGAA, the City of Playford’s population is projected to rise by 58,000 people. Last month’s population growth announcement by the State Government confirms what has been know for some time, that Northern Adelaide will house tens of thousands more in the decades to come. This growth presents enormous challenges for policymakers, particularly given high rates of unemployment in the region. Infrastructure deficits need to be overcome and local employment opportunities generated to ensure that our suburban areas are great places to both live and work in. The pace of suburban infrastructure and industry development must accelerate. While this is no easy task and will require substantial additional public and private sector investment, we are not without options to pursue. Associate Professor John Spoehr is the Executive Director of the Australian Workplace Innovation and Social Research Centre at the University of Adelaide

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